(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

William Stafford’s style, methods of composition, and command of themes had fully matured by the time he published his first book of poetry at the age of forty-six, and his second collection, Traveling Through the Dark (1962), won the National Book Award. In 1970 he became the national consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress. Throughout his career, Stafford wrote poetry that encouraged readers to contemplate their own experiences and beliefs in order to attain greater wisdom. He believed that readers who paid attention to the value of the commonplace would become advocates of tolerance and justice. Stafford’s faith in God and his commitment to equality dictated his use of a conversational style, one that shows respect for readers and renders his poetry accessible, entertaining, and cordial. His poems tell stories and advocate listing to nature as a source of peace and self-worth.

Stafford grew up in Kansas, where he was encouraged to explore the world around him. He credited his father for teaching him a deep appreciation of the natural world, and he attributed his fascination with language to his mother’s love of storytelling. Stafford’s parents were avid readers and nonconformists, committed to raising children who understood the importance of individuality and respect for others. Although Stafford’s mother maintained that Boy Scout uniforms were militaristic and refused to allow her sons to join, exploration of the natural world was encouraged, even to the degree that as a youth Stafford camped alone in the Cimarron River breaks—an experience he compared to a Native American vision quest. The excursion convinced him that the earth was his trustworthy home, a concept that became one of the strongest underlying themes in his later writing.

A conscientious objector during World War II, Stafford was incarcerated in Civilian Public Service Camps for four years, a formative experience from which he drew inspiration throughout his career as a writer. In the camps he and other...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Andrews, Tom, ed. On William Stafford: The Worth of Local Things. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993. Collection of reviews and essays, including discussion of the far-reaching debate over Stafford’s method of writing.

Kitchen, Judith. Writing the World: Understanding William Stafford. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1999. Analysis of Stafford’s major works that illustrates his advocacy of moral and spiritual responsibility. Extensive bibliography.

Metres, Philip. “William Stafford’s Down in My Heart: The Poetics of Pacifism and the Limits of Lyric.” Peace and Change 29, no. 1 (January, 2004): 1-28. Reveals the relationships among Stafford’s wartime experiences, his insistence on the importance of community, and his pacifist utopian poetics.

Stafford, Kim. Early Morning: Remembering My Father. Saint Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 2002. This thematic biography, written by Stafford’s son, describes the poet’s diverse accomplishments in writing, teaching, and parenting.

Stafford, William. Down in My Heart: Peace Witness in War Time. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1998. Stafford’s master’s thesis, first published by the Brethren Publishing House in 1947. Recounts Stafford’s experiences as a conscientious objector during World War II.